While James M. Cain will always be remembered for Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, there are quite a few lesser-known works well worth reading. Last year, Hard Case Crime published a lost Cain novel, The Cocktail Waitress, and now Mysterious Press has resurrected a number of obscure Cain titles:
- Sinful Woman
- Root of His Evil
- Jealous Woman
- Rainbow’s End
- The Institute
- Cloud Nine
- The Enchanted Isle
- The Moth
- The Magician’s Wife
Most of these titles have been out-of-print, and these novels are now available in e-format for the first time.
The Magician’s Wife opens with Clay Lockwood, the confident, affluent owner of Grants, a meat-packing business, stopping at Portico, a Maryland branch of a chain of restaurants. While he appears to be just another customer, he’s there thanks to a lucrative deal selling corned beef to the Portico chain and wants to make sure that the cooks handle the pre-cooked meat correctly. Lockwood notices one of the waitresses, a very attractive woman named Sally Alexis, and they square off in a meeting laced with attraction, desire, and sexual innuendo. Since this is noir fiction, it should come as no surprise that Sally and Lockwood begin a torrid, explosive affair that night. One night in the sack, and Lockwood is ready to call the preacher to seal the deal. But there’s a hitch: Sally is married and has a small child. Her husband, a small-time magician, has made his current stage assistant his latest mistress, and the marriage has been sour for some time.
Since Lockwood is a very affluent man with all the material things in life that he wants, he’s more than ready for Sally to divorce her deadbeat husband, take her kid and move in to his swanky apartment with him. Permanently. But Sally isn’t so hot on the idea. See there’s the matter of a few million dollars, and a couple of bodies are in the way of Sally and the money that she thinks is rightfully hers….
It showed through, like the blue on a corpse’s fingernails, what she was hoping for. What she means to do, perhaps. If she gets help.
Sally is, of course, a classic noir femme fatale–sexy, manipulative, cunning, and she’s also more than a little unhinged. Not that that makes her any less attractive to Lockwood, who has a real problem when it comes to dealing with women. When Sally goes too far one evening, Lockwood decides to move on to calmer pastures. Unfortunately, once Sally has her teeth in a man, she doesn’t let go easily.
The Magician’s Wife is not Cain’s finest work, so I don’t want to claim that, but as a Cain fan, it was one of those books I couldn’t pass up. One of the enjoyable aspects of the story is the way in which Cain makes it clear that a femme fatale may be dangerous, explosive and destructive, but all those negative qualities are magnified when she hooks up with a malleable man with weak morality or issues of one sort or another. Lockwood is a case in point. Any sane man would run from Sally’s kind of trouble, but Lockwood’s ego gets in the way–for a while at least. And it’s perfect that Cain created Lockwood as the owner of the meat-packing plant. There’s something not quite healthy about his carnivorous appetite. He aggressively seeks out contracts for meat, and he’s equally aggressive in his lustful approaches to Sally–even though his common sense tells him to end the relationship.
That vanity was his trouble, inflamed by obsessive desire; that was his great source of strength, the element in his nature that drove him ahead in business, riding all the obstacles down, could also be his weakness; that this giddy twin sister of pride could have a soft underbelly, loving praise above everything else, especially this girl’s praise, and dreading her phony scorn.
Cain creates an interesting cast of characters for this book; there’s Sally’s husband The Great Alexis aka Alec Gorsuch, the heir to the Gorsuch fortune who works as a two-bit magician at the Lilac Flamingo and his cheap tarty assistant, Busty Buster. There’s also Sally’s mother, artist Grace Simone. I can’t give away too much of the plot here, but there’s a development between Lockwood and Grace Simone that didn’t quite gel for me, but after finishing the book and chewing the story over, I came to the conclusion that the ultimate femme fatale is arguably one who comes in disguise. I had to reread the last line several times and ask myself who got what they wanted in the end….